Palestinians, allies, plead for UN force

Kofi Annan is discussing the issue in meetings this week. Israel, the US object.

Violence routinely begets violence. And in the modern world, it sometimes begets international intervention.

That is the logic Palestinians are using as they repeat their demands for international protection from the United Nations. Given the opposition of the US and Israel, a UN intervention isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

But UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is discussing the issue with the two sides this week. Palestinian officials say they are aware of the obstacles and the shortcomings of such interventions, which have on occasion proved ineffective in halting aggression. But the Palestinians persist in their calls. Whether a UN force can offer real succor is not the issue, says Mohammed Dahlan, a top Palestinian official in Gaza. "It's 'does the international community take responsibility to protect civilians?' "

Palestinians have seen the UN, as well as powerful nations acting apart from the UN, intervene in other situations - the example often cited is Kosovo - and they are demanding similar assistance. "We are asking for a UN force in order to put an end to Israeli aggression," says Palestinian legislator Rawhi Fatouh, standing outside an office building in Gaza City that was severely damaged Monday by a series of Israeli missiles.

The Israelis launched the attack, the most intensive bombardment of Palestinian targets of the current uprising, in retaliation for the bombing of a school bus carrying Israeli settlers and children in Gaza.

Both Israelis and Palestinians hold up their civilian casualties as evidence of the other side's perfidy, but it is remarkable that what military officials call "collateral damage" isn't greater. The near miss of Ahmed Hellas, a leader of the Palestinian Fatah organization in the Gaza Strip, suggests why.

On Monday night, an Israeli missile crashed through the wall of his third-floor office, smashing the back of his executive-style chair, and covering his desk in rubble and dust. He wasn't in at the time, since Palestinian officials were expecting the reprisal, but yesterday even Mr. Hellas couldn't deny that the Israeli aim was impressive.

Receiving well-wishers as he toured the wreckage, his hard-line rhetoric suggested why outside intervention might prove necessary to break what seems like a worsening cycle of provocation and retribution. "We are determined to resist the [Israeli] occupation," Hellas proclaimed. "We will not stop because of the bombardment or anything else."

But Israel remains resolutely against the idea of international intervention. Many Israelis argue the UN has an anti-Israel bias, since it has repeatedly condemned their state at the urging of Palestinians.

Today, while Israelis generally respect Mr. Annan, distrust of his organization runs deep. "I don't think anyone in Israel regards the UN as a fair body," says Barry Rubin, deputy director of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. Mr. Rubin dismisses the notion of a UN intervention. "It's not a protective force. Basically ... Palestinians would attack Israelis, and they wouldn't be able to respond," he says. "It's absolute suicide, and no one in Israel would accept it."

For Israel, accepting an international force would be too much of a loss, argues Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. He says the Palestinian territories have gained a degree of autonomy since the Oslo peace accord of 1993, but that Israel has little to show for it.

"Israelis have allowed Arafat to come back and build an infrastructure without getting a quid pro quo," says Mr. Shehadi. "Getting an international force in there would ... almost be a recognition that this is Palestinian territory without getting anything in return for it.... For Israelis, it's a lot to give up."

Palestinians are also encountering objections from the US, whose veto power in the Security Council could stop any intervention initiative in its tracks. "We Palestinians know that the Americans are also against us, not the Israelis alone," says legislator Fatouh.

US officials have said they will not back the idea of a UN force as long as Israel opposes it. Instead, they insist that Israelis and Palestinians need only adhere to the US-brokered agreement the two sides reached in October at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik.

That agreement called for an end to violence, which was quickly ignored, and established a US-led, international fact-finding committee of five individuals who will work with both sides in reviewing the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli response. They will present their report to the UN, among others. This inquiry isn't likely to be enough of an international involvement to satisfy the Palestinians.

But even without Israeli and US resistance, there are considerable problems involved in establishing a UN presence. Shehadi points out that getting UN missions off the ground is a time-consuming, politically fraught endeavor. "It doesn't happen overnight," Shehadi says. Inevitable questions arise: "What's the time limit? How do you determine when this force has achieved its goals?

"It would be very difficult to organize such a force, find the funding, and then you might have it there forever," he adds, pointing to a marginally effective UN force that has been in Lebanon since 1978.

But there is at least one instance of UN involvement in Israeli affairs that has worked. In April 1996, a French initiative led to the creation of the South Lebanon monitoring group, established to oversee the Israeli-occupied stretch of Lebanon where Hizbullah guerrilla fighters battled Israeli forces.

While the multinational group had no power to sanction either side, it did set rules against the targeting of civilians and other activity. The observers tracked conflicts and reported any infringements of the rules. "It was an attempt to control chaotic violence, which is what you have in Palestine now," says Shehadi.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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